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The U.S. Midwest Is Foreign Oligarchs’ New Playground
Foreign Policy
Casey Michel and Paul Massaro
Thursday, June 03, 2021

Forget Manhattan or Monaco; it’s cities like Cleveland that are now attracting ill-gotten money from abroad.

For many in the West, the notion of kleptocracy—of transnational money laundering tied to oligarchs and authoritarians bent on washing billions of dollars in dirty money—remains a foreign concept. It conjures images of oligarchs purchasing penthouses in Manhattan or regime insiders floating aboard yachts along the French Riviera or maybe even the children of despots racing luxury cars down the streets of Paris. With pockets bulging with billions of dollars in illicit wealth, it makes a certain sense why these kleptocrats would gravitate toward other deep-pocketed areas.

But these kleptocrats are no longer just laundering and parking their dirty money in places like MiamiMalibu, and Monaco. Instead, they’ve begun targeting new areas for their laundering sprees, places few would suspect: from declining, second-tier cities like Cleveland, Ohio, to small factory and steel towns across the American Midwest. In so doing, these kleptocratic figures are no longer simply keeping luxury condos on standby or collecting fleets of private jets and high-end automobiles. Instead, they’re increasingly leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, demolishing the economies of working-class towns and leaving behind empty, sagging downtowns as relics of better times.

Take, for instance, the ongoing story of Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky. Recently sanctioned by the United States for his rank corruption, Kolomoisky stands accused by Ukrainian and U.S. authorities of overseeing one of the greatest Ponzi schemes the world has ever seen. Running PrivatBank, one of Ukraine’s leading retail banks, for years, Kolomoisky crafted an image of a successful entrepreneur devoted to Ukraine’s growing middle class. However, not long after Ukraine’s successful anti-authoritarian revolution in 2014, Ukrainian authorities began poking around the ledgers of Kolomoisky’s bank. Their findings were staggering. Ukrainian investigators—led by Valeria Gontareva, then-reformist head of Ukraine’s banking governing body—discovered a $5.5-billion hole in the middle of PrivatBank’s books.

The hole forced Kyiv to nationalize the bank, plugging an institution that was too big to fail and sending Kolomoisky on the run. When it came to Ukrainian banks transforming into money laundering machines, “PrivatBank wasn’t an exception,” Gontareva told Foreign Policy. “The problem was that it was the biggest one.”

The immediate question was an obvious one: Where had the money gone? As journalists discovered, and as the U.S. Justice Department has alleged in a series of filings in recent months, Kolomoisky didn’t direct the missing billions of dollars into London flats or mansions on the Italian coastline. Instead, as U.S. and Ukrainian investigators discovered, Kolomoisky and a network of enablers plowed much of the money into commercial real estate in places like Cleveland and Louisville, Kentucky—and into small towns reliant on manufacturing plants and steel factories in Illinois, West Virginia, and Michigan. Rather than use the illicit money to play alongside the world’s elite, Kolomoisky and his network allegedly buried their money in the heart of Middle America, using a series of shell companies and cash purchases to obscure their trail.

Why would a foreign oligarch decide to hide hundreds of millions of dollars (and potentially more) across overlooked pockets of the United States? Kolomoisky’s example offers three possible motivations. The first reason lies in the obscurity of smalls town like Warren, Ohio, and Harvard, Illinois. Few investigators, journalists, and authorities would have paid any attention to these purchases, let alone asked questions about the source of funds. Unlike places like Seattle, Dallas, or New York City, where the United States now effectively bars anonymous real estate purchases, much of the rest of the country remains perfectly open for the kinds of anonymous real estate purchases at the heart of kleptocratic networks.

The second reason appears directly linked to the economic decline of many of these overlooked regions, especially following the Great Recession. For many of these assets, the only buyers are often kleptocrats with deep pockets. In Cleveland, for instance, Kolomoisky’s network of enablers swooped into town when no one else appeared interested, snapping up numerous massive downtown buildings in the post-2008 world. According to a local Cleveland journalist who requested to speak on background, Kolomoisky’s network simply “showed up in Cleveland and started buying when no one else was buying.” Eventually, the oligarch and his team became the biggest commercial real estate holders in the entire city. And that dynamic—with kleptocratic money the only game in town—meant those on the receiving end had no incentive to look this foreign gift horse in the mouth, even when the signs of money laundering were clear.

And the ease of entering these markets meant Kolomoisky and his network could do whatever they wanted with these assets—even running them into the ground as they did time and again. Indeed, Kolomoisky never appeared interested in turning a profit for any of these U.S. assets but instead using them simply as something of a kleptocratic nest egg, far away from Ukrainian authorities. According to court documents, Kolomoisky used his U.S. investments simply as nodes in his laundering network, allowing them to slowly fall apart—but not before, in some cases, these assets’ slow-motion collapse sent Americans to the hospital with debilitating injuries.

This happened time and again across the American Rust Belt and Midwest. The steel plant in Warren, now shuttered, looks like something out of a dystopian landscape, with cavernous holes gouged in the siding and walls covered in rust—and with all of its former employees now without jobs. A hulking manufacturing plant in the town of Harvard, Illinois—a plant that should have been the economic lifeblood for the town—has been left to rot, with the cash-strapped city left to pick up the tab. (“The building is f—ing cursed,” Michael Kelly, the town’s mayor, told us.) And rather than investments and the dreamed-of revitalization, Cleveland has been left with, as one local paper said, a “gaping hole” in its downtown, courtesy of the investments Kolomoisky and his network let effectively implode. As the local  journalist familiar with the Kolomoisky-linked purchases added, “They pretty much ruined everything they touched.”

Over and over again, Kolomoisky and his network allegedly turned to Middle America—overlooked towns, forgotten areas, regions that needed an economic lifeline, whatever the source—for their massive laundering needs. And in so doing, they revealed kleptocrats no longer simply turn to the coasts or the cultural capitals and beach-front areas traditionally associated with modern kleptocracy. Main Street America is now a target for this corrosive, kleptocratic capital, draining these areas of whatever hope or promise remained.

“I like to use the analogy of—if you’ve ever lived out in the far West—a dry streambed,” said former FBI agent Karen Greenaway, who’d been involved in tracking transnational money laundering for years, in 2019 congressional testimony at the Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. federal agency focusing on human rights and pro-democracy policies. “Dirty money is like a rainstorm coming into a dry streambed. It comes very quickly, and a lot of it comes very fast, and the stream fills up, and then it gets dry again.” Yet the sources of illicit wealth—those behind the dirty money flood—aren’t interested in turning their investments into productive, job-creating engines. “What we have is people who don’t live in the United States, who don’t have any intention of really investing in the United States, but they needed a place to put their money,” Greenaway continued. “I think it’s hurting small-town America. I just don’t think that we’ve come to that realization yet.”

Thankfully, U.S. legislators are finally starting to propose solutions and beginning to center the kind of kleptocracy embodied by Kolomoisky at the heart of proposed reforms. Although the polarization of Congress is taken for granted these days, counter-kleptocracy efforts remain an important space where Democrats and Republicans continue to agree. As such, a bipartisan slate of legislators will be launching a “Caucus Against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy” on June 10, seeking to advance solutions and educate other members on the corrosive effects of kleptocracy, especially as it pertains to its effects on mainstream Americans.

The proposed solutions address three primary prongs of counter-kleptocracy efforts. The first of these proposals entails enhancing resiliency at home by building legal and financial systems more resistant to the taint of corruption. Congress took a significant step forward last year by banning anonymous shell company formations, long a favorite tool of kleptocrats moving their money around the West. But it hasn’t stopped there. Congress will soon be debating the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act, a critical piece of legislation to counter authoritarian regimes increasingly reaching into democratic countries to target dissidents and journalists (such as what we recently saw out of Belarus). Kleptocratic regimes do this via things like Interpol, which is itself regularly abused by these governments and figures to harass and silence dissidents and critics, ensuring their stolen money remains hidden elsewhere. Among other things, this bill would effectively protect the U.S. judicial system from abuse by kleptocrats and would aid U.S. efforts to reform rule-of-law governance mechanisms within Interpol.

The second prong of proposed reforms targets kleptocrats directly, including the use of sanctions, visa bans, intelligence networks, and law enforcement authorities to disable individual kleptocrats and ensure they cannot corrode democratic institutions. Congress took another step forward last year with the passage of the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, a rare extraterritorial criminal statute that enables U.S. law enforcement to indict and pursue “doping fraud,” the use of doping regimes to defraud athletes, businesses, and states—a common tactic of authoritarian kleptocracies at international games. Congress is also now set to debate the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act (FEPA). If passed, this bill would serve as a long-awaited complement to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Where the FCPA makes it illegal for a company to pay a bribe abroad, FEPA will make it a crime for a foreign official to demand a bribe. This creates liability for the kleptocrats who extort law-abiding companies. These kleptocrats can then be arrested and tried when they travel to the West to spend and launder their ill-gotten gains.

Finally, the third prong centers on building the rule of law abroad, including emphasizing more targeted uses of foreign aid to fight corruption as well as working closely with allies to dismantle the broader offshore economy. For instance, the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy Act, recently introduced in the Senate by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin and Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, would create an “anti-corruption action fund” that accumulates money via a surcharge on fines from the FCPA. These resources can then be surged into countries undergoing significant democratization movements and reforms (such as Ukraine following its successful 2014 revolution), providing increasing resources for investigators in recipient countries to track how these kleptocrats loot, launder, and stash their ill-gotten gains abroad—including in places like small-town America.

whole host of other ideas are under discussion in Congress, many of which will be spearheaded by the forthcoming “Caucus Against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy.” And the ideas can’t come a moment too soon. As the case of Kolomoisky clearly illustrates, kleptocracy and the regimes that benefit are no longer things that simply happen abroad or in elite, coastal enclaves. Until these bills are passed and currently floated ideas are implemented, these kleptocrats will continue to assume they can target any U.S. state, city, or town they’d like—and that they can upend the lives of Americans regardless of profession or political leaning.

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  • THE ALARMING RISE IN ANTISEMITISM AND ITS THREAT TO DEMOCRACY

    In response to a rise in antisemitism in the United States and abroad, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on December 13, 2022, featuring experts on preventing and combatting it. Witnesses testified about current development and how best to respond, as well as reinforced the important role of multilateral cooperation. In an increasingly global world where antisemitism can spread rapidly online, witnesses stressed that every country has a responsibility to combat anti-Semitism, as it has serious implications for democracy. Opening the hearing, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) expressed his alarm at the shocking rise of antisemitic speech and attacks in recent years in both the United States and Europe. Popular entertainers and public figures such as rapper and producer “Ye,” formerly Kanye West, have spread antisemitic tropes to their followers on social media or through public statements. Antisemitic disinformation and conspiracy theories proliferated in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that statements by public figures and online disinformation not only serve to normalize prejudice and discrimination, but they also can incite extremism and violent attacks. President Putin has even tried to justify Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine through perversely antisemitic statements claiming the invasion was an effort to “de-Nazify” the country, notwithstanding its Jewish president. He highlighted the destructive role of disinformation and the importance of educational programs, calling for a unified strategy to combat antisemitism across government and society: “We must speak out loudly and clearly against antisemitism when it occurs. As leaders, we must lead and fight against hate. We cannot allow antisemitism or any type of prejudice or intolerance to be normalized,” he said. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) raised questions about the cause of the recent increase in antisemitism. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) condemned the rise of antisemitism around the world, highlighted the important work the U.S. Helsinki Commission and the OSCE have done to combat it, and called on countries to take more action: “... it is clear what I stated last week, that antisemitism cannot be tolerated in any situation or under any circumstances.  I’m very concerned by the rise of antisemitic incidents over the past several years, both in the United States and Europe.”  Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-03) expressed his disgust at the alarming rise of antisemitism in the United States and Europe, raising concerns about Holocaust denial and securing places of worship: “It seems that every day and every week there’s another bomb threat at a Jewish day school, another discovery of antisemitic graffiti spraypainted on a college campus, or, at its worst, a shooting at a synagogue.”  Rep. Marc Veasey (TX -33) inquired about what Congress should do in response to the rapid acceleration of antisemitism and extremism online: “We know that century-old antisemitic tropes are being increasingly mainstreamed and normalized due, in part, to social media and the amplification of problematic individuals.”  Senator Richard Blumenthal (CT), discussed how to improve hate-crime legislation as well as how to come to terms with the history of antisemitism in the United States: “One of the innovations that we included in hate-crimes legislation was to give judges the option in sentencing to require that the convicted defendant, the perpetrator, perform acts of community service that put him or her in direct – in direct contact with the community who was the victim of the hate crime." Senator Rosen (NV) described how she co-led a bipartisan and bicameral letter signed by 126 members of Congress calling on President Biden to develop a unified national strategy to monitor and combat antisemitism: “I’m proud to say, just last night [Dec. 12, 2022] the White House heeded our call, announcing the formation of an interagency task force to combat anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. And its first order of business is to develop a national strategy to combat anti-Semitism." She also outlined specific actions that the United States must pursue including addressing online antisemitism, allocating increased resources to provide physical security for Jewish institutions, educating students about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, improving hate crimes data collection and reporting, and advancing a whole-of-government approach to combat this issue. Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism at the U.S. State Department reiterated the importance of international coalition building and multilateral institutions in coordinating responses to antisemitism. She highlighted that antisemitism is often inextricably linked to prejudice and violence against other groups and religions: “Antisemitism is not a niche issue. It’s not just about helping or protecting Jews. As you entitled this hearing, it’s also a danger to democracy. Jews are the canary in the coal mine. If something is – if anti-Semitism is manifesting itself, other hatreds cannot be far behind." She also mentioned positive international developments, specifically in the Middle East such as Abraham Accords, and described how countries are starting to rethink their attitudes about antisemitism. Rabbi Andrew Baker, Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office on Combating Antisemitism as well as Director of International Jewish Affairs at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), described the steps OSCE governments should take to better tackle this issue. He emphasized the importance of accurate data collection, securing Jewish community buildings, and expanding Holocaust education in Europe. He also described that preventing the spread of antisemitism online is perhaps the most difficult part of the problem to solve: “We are outnumbered and out-funded by the social media giants. Content monitors are no match for algorithms designed to push grievance as the basic business model.” Members brought several concerns and questions to witnesses about the source of the recent rise of antisemitism, the importance of Holocaust education, how best to allocate resources to secure religious and community spaces, the value of differentiatng among different types of hate crime, and how to halt the rapid spread of antisemitism online. For more information, please contact Janice Helwig, Senior Policy Advisor, at Janice.Helwig@mail.house.gov  

  • No Safe Haven: Launching the US-Europe Coalition on Russia Sanctions

    Since February 24, 2022, Western countries have imposed sanctions against Russian officials, businessmen, and public figures who support Russian aggression against Ukraine by financial or political means. Personal sanctions have been effective in creating tension between Putin’s proponents and continuing to help Ukraine fight for its independence. The biggest issue of personal sanctions policy is desynchronization among the countries imposing them. For example, when the United States enacts sanctions against politicians, public officials, and businessmen who support Russia’s war, the European Union and the United Kingdom do not. A similar dysfunction occurs when the European Union and Great Britain enforce sanctions on individuals without equal participation from the United States. The unity of the West in imposing sanctions on those driving Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is essential for Ukrainian victory. This public briefing united seven legislators from the United States, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland. The panelists will announce the creation of the US-Europe Coalition on Russia Sanctions, which will synchronize the sanctions policy between the European Union, Ukraine, and the USA.

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Briefing on US-Europe Coalition for Russia Sanctions

    WASHINGTON—At a virtual kickoff event on December 13, Co-Chairman Cohen and Ranking Member Wilson launched the US-Europe Coalition on Russia Sanctions.   NO SAFE HAVEN Launching the US-Europe Coalition on Russia Sanctions   Tuesday, December 13, 2022 8:30 a.m. EST   Since February 24, 2022, Western countries have imposed sanctions against Russian officials, businessmen, and public figures who support Russian aggression against Ukraine by financial or political means. Personal sanctions have been effective in creating tension between Putin’s proponents and continuing to help Ukraine fight for its independence. The biggest issue of personal sanctions policy is desynchronization among the countries imposing them. For example, when the United States enacts sanctions against politicians, public officials, and businessmen who support Russia’s war, the European Union and the United Kingdom do not. A similar dysfunction occurs when the European Union and Great Britain enforce sanctions on individuals without equal participation from the United States. The unity of the West in imposing sanctions on those driving Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is essential for Ukrainian victory. This public briefing will unite seven legislators from the United States, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland. The panelists will announce the creation of the US-Europe Coalition on Russia Sanctions, which will synchronize the sanctions policy between the European Union, Ukraine, and the USA. The following panelists are scheduled to participate:   Representative Steve Cohen — Member of Congress, Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, United States Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson — Member of Congress, Commissioner of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, United States Member of Parliament Oleksii Goncharenko — Chairman of the Ukrainian parliament caucuses "For free Caucasus" and "For democratic Belarus", Ukraine Member of Parliament Dr. Robert Seely, MBE — British Conservative Party politician who has served as the Member of Parliament (MP) for the Isle of Wight since June 2017. Member of Parliament Eerik Kross — head of the Estonian delegation in PACE, Estonia Member of the EU Parliament Petras Austrevicius — serves on the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Lithuania Member of the Sejm Arkadius Mularczyk — Secretary of State for European Affairs, Leader of the Polish delegation to the Council of Europe, Poland    

  • OSCE’s 2022 Ministerial Council in Lodz: Russia Isolated as States Demand Accountability and Reaffirm Commitments

    By Janice Helwig, Senior Policy Advisor, Demitra Pappas, Senior Advisor Department of State, Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to OSCE   Foreign Ministers and senior officials from the 57 participating States and 11 Asian and Mediterranean partners of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) convened the OSCE Ministerial Council in Lodz, Poland on December 1-2. While the OSCE Ministerial is held annually, this year’s meeting was atypical, due to its taking place amid the greatest crisis in European security since World War II, namely Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. States Accuse Russia and Belarus of Violating Principles, Stand with Ukraine Polish-Chairman-in-Office, Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau in his opening remarks pointedly blamed Russia for destroying the security order and attempting to undermine the Organization. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, abetted by Belarus, violated each of the politico-military, democratic, human rights, and economic and environmental commitments enshrined in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, an agreement that underpinned European security for nearly 50 years. Most fundamentally, the Lodz Ministerial underscored participating States’ desire to return to the founding principles of the OSCE - the Helsinki Final Act – and to call out Russia’s violation of each. Participating State after participating State took the floor to reaffirm their OSCE commitments and to call Russia to account.  Russia was entirely isolated, with only Belarus attempting, pathetically, to deflect blame on others for “corroding” the spirit of Helsinki. At each instance, participating States overwhelmingly reaffirmed their support for OSCE principles and denounced Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine, declared solidarity with Ukraine, and demanded accountability for war crimes, the crime of aggression, and violations of international humanitarian law. Participating States also voiced strong support for the work of the OSCE’s autonomous institutions, including the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Representative of the Freedom of the Media in particular, whose mandates and funding are often in Russia’s crosshairs. Many participating States also noted the importance of the three “Moscow Mechanism” reports issued this past year to document Russia’s violations of international humanitarian law in Ukraine and its repression of human rights at home. A joint statement delivered by Finland on behalf of 42 other participating States condemned Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine and called for perpetrators to be held accountable. OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Margareta Cederfelt advocated establishing a high-level body to assess reparations from Russia. Two other aspects of the Ministerial were unique. Absent were the annual negotiations among participating States on decisions designed to enhance existing commitments on cooperative security, which the Polish Chair assessed as unfeasible due to Russian intransigence. Also absent was Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, against whom Poland took a principled stand to exclude from attending. OSCE Continued Work in 2022, Despite Russia’s Objections States also used their interventions to welcome OSCE’s development of new approaches in 2022 with regard to sustaining its human rights work and presence in Ukraine to overcome Russia’s attempts to undermine the Organization.  In the years leading up to the Ministerial, Russia had increased its abuse of OSCE’s consensus-decision making to block the Organization’s budget, to close OSCE’s three field missions in Ukraine, and to prevent the convening of OSCE’s signature, annual human rights conference, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). Yet despite its concerted efforts, Russia failed to block OSCE’s human rights work or eradicate its work in Ukraine. “On the contrary,” as U.S. delegation head, Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland observed in Lodz, the OSCE “has said no to Moscow’s efforts to divide it, to paralyze it, to destroy it.” Nuland added, the Organization has emerged “even stronger, more flexible, more resilient” under Poland’s stewardship and that of Secretary General Helga Maria Schmid.   After Russia blocked the HDIM, the Polish Chairmanship convened the Warsaw Human Dimension Conference (WHDC) in September, conducting a full review of human rights commitments with the participation of more than one thousand governmental and civil society representatives in attendance. In November, the Secretariat stood up a donor-funded “Support Programme Ukraine” which reestablished an OSCE presence in the country. These are examples of how the OSCE has continued to promote Helsinki principles and deliver programming in spite of Russia’s attempts to undermine it. Side Events, Civil Society Parallel Conference Seek to Close Russia’s “Accountability Gap” A range of side events amplified concerns of participating States and civil society regarding the terrible human toll of Russia’s war and the need for accountability. The first side event explored the increased risk of human trafficking among Ukrainian citizens fleeing the conflict and the illegal abduction and forced adoption of Ukrainian children in Russia. The establishment of a Group of Friends on Children in Armed Conflict was also announced. A side event moderated by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba outlined various means to hold Russia accountable for atrocities committed in Ukraine, including providing support to the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office and to the International Criminal Court through the collection evidence of crimes and aiding in investigations. Minister Kuleba strongly advocated for the establishment of a Special Tribunal to prosecute Russia’s crime of aggression and received broad support. An event featuring Belarusian opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other activists drew renewed attention to the plight of thousands of political prisoners in Belarus and called for the invocation of another Moscow Mechanism report to document ongoing human rights violations by the government of Belarus. Civic Solidarity Platform (CSP), a regional association of human rights civil society organizations, hosted its annual Parallel Civil Society Conference on November 30 which likewise called on participating States to ensure accountability for perpetrators of war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine.  In response to CSP’s long-standing call for closer collaboration between the OSCE and civil society, North Macedonia, which assumes the Chairmanship of OSCE in 2023, committed to appoint a Special Representative on Civil Society Organizations. Looking Ahead to 2023: North Macedonia Despite Russia’s isolation, its war against Ukraine continues even as Poland plans to pass the leadership of the Organization to North Macedonia as of January 1, 2023. As the incoming Chairman-in-Office, Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani pledged that North Macedonia’s tenure “will be guided by strict observance of OSCE principles and commitments.” He further stressed the cooperative nature of regional security, noting, “Safeguarding OSCE values and respect for international law must be a shared priority. This is of utmost importance. Rebuilding trust and engaging in meaningful dialogue presupposes full compliance with the agreed OSCE commitments and principles. We all have to be accountable for our actions. This is the formula for the way forward.”     

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Hearing on Crowdsourcing Victory for Ukraine

      WATCH LIVE                                                                                                                                  CROWDSOURCING VICTORY Inside the Civil Society Campaign to Improve the Lethality and Survivability of the Ukrainian Military   Wednesday, December 7, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 A unique aspect of Ukraine’s decentralized defense has been the rise of civil society organizations marshalling grassroots support for the Ukrainian war effort and humanitarian response. Unlike the USO or care packages Americans send our overseas troops, NGOs are effectively serving as the quartermaster for Ukraine’s troops, supplying tactical gear such as commercial drones, night and thermal vision optics, encrypted radios, and body armor. In many cases, these organizations have supplied this war-winning gear in greater volumes than Ukraine’s government itself, freeing agencies like the Ministry of Defense to focus on securing advanced weapons systems from Western suppliers. These civil society organizations exemplify the total mobilization of Ukrainian society at levels that have only been seen in the West during the Second World War. The hearing will examine logistical and regulatory challenges that often stymie efforts to surge needed gear to the front and will identify policy options for Washington and Brussels to declutter and harmonize an export framework that was never intended for a massive land war in Europe. It will also seek to answer the question of why frontline units with advanced Western weaponry still lack battlefield essentials such as combat optics, secure communications, and vehicles needed to transport casualties from the red zone to hospitals in the rear. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Dora Chomiak, President of U.S.-based NGO Razom for Ukraine Taras Chmut, Director of the Ukraine-based foundation Come Back Alive Serhiy Prytula, Founder and Chairman of the Ukraine-based Prytula Charity Foundation   Jonas Öhman, Founder and Head of the Lithuania-based NGO Blue/Yellow for Ukraine    

  • Crowdsourcing Victory

            A unique aspect of Ukraine’s decentralized defense has been the rise of civil society organizations marshalling grassroots support for the Ukrainian war effort and humanitarian response. Unlike the USO or care packages Americans send our overseas troops, NGOs are effectively serving as the quartermaster for Ukraine’s troops, supplying tactical gear such as commercial drones, night and thermal vision optics, encrypted radios, and body armor. In many cases, these organizations have supplied this war-winning gear in greater volumes than Ukraine’s government itself, freeing agencies like the Ministry of Defense to focus on securing advanced weapons systems from Western suppliers. These civil society organizations exemplify the total mobilization of Ukrainian society at levels that have only been seen in the West during the Second World War. In this hearing, a number of witnesses testified to the logistical and regulatory challenges that often stymie efforts to surge needed gear to the front. Testimony also answered the questions of why frontline units with advanced Western weaponry still lack battlefield essentials such as combat optics, secure communications, and vehicles needed to transport casualties from the red zone to hospitals in the rear. Dora Chomiak, President of U.S.-based NGO Razom for Ukraine, spoke about the dangerous conditions her organization’s truck drivers face when delivering much needed equipment and humanitarian assistance to the front lines. She also highlighted Razom’s successful projects, which include the Bohdan Radchenko Stipend for Veterans, a medical mission in Ukraine from September 16-24th, a toy drive for displaced orphans and families, and the “Razom with You” program that supports those in need of psychological help. Taras Chmut, Director of the Ukraine-based foundation Come Back Alive, discussed the need for the United States to remove Ukraine from the “Crime Control” column of the Commerce Control List. His organization is the first charity organization in Ukraine that received a license for the purchase and import of military and dual-purpose goods. In order to function efficiently, Chmut requests the United States to revise their export framework, which was never intended for a massive land war in Europe. Serhiy Prytula, Founder and Chairman of the Ukraine-based Prytula Charity Foundation, also spoke up to thank the United States for its continued support. The Prytula Foundation has raised more than $85 million for the Ukrainian army, and is a true representation of how military and civil society have cooperated against the brutal and unjustified actions of Russia. Prytula advocated next steps; specifically, investigating Russian war crimes, designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, and removing Russia from the UN Security Council. Jonas Öhman, Founder and Head of the Lithuania-based NGO Blue/Yellow for Ukraine, discussed the critical role of civil society within the defenses of Ukraine. He encouraged Congress to pass relevant legislation regarding the import of dual-use items in order to create necessary opportunities for trusted civil society actors to become more efficient in joint defense efforts.

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Briefing on Russia's Infrastructure Terrorists

                 HELSINKI COMMISSION          COMMISSION BRIEFING NOTICE Members of the Commission and their staff are respectfully invited to attend the following Commission staff-led briefing: RUSSIA’S INFRASTRUCTURE TERRORISTS Thursday, December 8, 2022 3:30 p.m. Please Register Here Russia, in its brutal war against Ukrainians, has been ruthlessly and methodically targeting Ukraine’s critical infrastructure and other civilian objects, plunging millions of Ukrainians, including children and the elderly, into darkness and cold. Schools, hospitals, maternity wards, and kindergartens have not been able to function. And while there are no reliable estimates on the number of civilian deaths that may be attributed to this infrastructure terrorism, it’s clear Russia is targeting infrastructure to maximize pain to civilians and damage their property. As a prominent Russian propaganda channel sickeningly put it, “… it is difficult to believe in victory when funerals come to your own friends, and you yourself are without light, heat and water, going to bathroom in a bucket.”  Russia’s goal is to demoralize and terrorize Ukrainians which is a crime against humanity under international humanitarian law. Ukrainians have responded to this terror with heroic efforts to restore power grid, water, and heating to as many citizens as possible as fast as possible. However, Russia’s attacks continue and the Ukrainian grid teeters on the brink of failure under stresses no civilian power was ever designed to withstand. This briefing will examine the extent of damage to critical infrastructure, the toll in human suffering, and what the United States can do to help Ukrainians survive this cruel winter. The following panelist is scheduled to participate: The Honorable Oleksandra Azarkhina, Deputy Minister of Infrastructure of Ukraine

  • The Case for Getting Tough on Hungary

    Sixty-six years ago, ordinary Hungarians bravely stood up to Moscow’s empire of oppression. Yet, on its anniversary, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán took aim at Europe, a curious choice given Russia’s imperialist war against Ukraine right at Hungary’s doorstep. “Let’s not bother with those who shoot at Hungary from the shadows or from the heights of Brussels. They will end up where their predecessors did,” Orbán told crowds in Western Hungary last Sunday. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, European solidarity and the transatlantic alliance have been put to the ultimate test. Amid the horrors of Russia’s genocidal war, many nations have risen to the occasion. But Hungary’s Orbán has shown his stripes: He has openly aligned himself with Vladimir Putin, and his government has demonstrated itself as an unreliable partner to the West, even as it happily avails itself of the West’s military protection and economic might. In March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a direct appeal to Orbán in front of European Union leaders, saying, “You hesitate whether to impose sanctions or not? You hesitate whether to let weapons through or not? And you hesitate whether to trade with Russia or not? It’s time to decide already.” Since then, Orbán has given Zelensky his answer: On every count, Hungary stands with Russia. A member of NATO since 1999, and the EU since 2004, Hungary has bitterly opposed stronger Western sanctions against Russia, strengthened energy ties with Russia, banned lethal aid from passing through its territory to Ukraine, and is dragging its feet on NATO expansion to Finland and Sweden — the only NATO ally aside from Turkey to do so. Even more glaringly, Orbán has publicly blamed the West for provoking Russia’s actions in Ukraine, an utterly indefensible position given the genocidal war Russia has waged without provocation. In a July 23 speech, Orbán told a Hungarian-minority audience in Romania that his Russian counterpart’s justification for the war in Ukraine “does make sense, and it is worth taking seriously.” In the same speech, he made abject claims that Ukraine cannot win the war; that NATO expansion is to blame for Russian aggression; that the United States is using energy as a foreign policy weapon; and that Russia will continue to push the front line as long as NATO countries supply heavy weapons to Ukraine. Hungary’s defense of Russia’s brutal repression abroad is a natural extension of its growing authoritarianism at home. Orbán has transformed Hungary into an illiberal autocracy. Fidesz, the country’s ruling party, has systematically eroded democratic freedoms in Hungary since it came to power in 2010. Orbán has manipulated election laws to benefit Fidesz, packed the Constitutional Court with cronies, and consolidated media control to amplify his party’s propaganda. Civil society is unable to function freely due to restrictive laws, and many individuals and groups are subject to smear campaigns. It’s time to get tough on Hungary.  Hungary has caused a fracture in NATO’s united front against Russia, which is a grave security and credibility risk for the organization. Hungary acts as Russia’s best advocate in Europe with impunity, which not only undermines transatlantic unity, but signals NATO weakness. As a result, members of the alliance should consider downgrading relations with Hungary, especially since NATO is founded on the principles of “democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law,” principles that Orbán has been intentionally eroding. Bilaterally, the United States cannot sit back silently while a NATO ally aligns itself with Putin’s Russia under thinly-veiled claims of “neutrality,” and simultaneously dismantles democracy domestically. It is important that the United States speaks with a united voice — Democrats and Republicans alike — to condemn Hungary’s allegiance to Russia. We should ramp up support for independent journalism and civil society in Hungary, as well as consider other tools to limit our economic investment and military partnership with Hungary if the government’s belligerence continues. The United States has leverage, and we should demand better from a NATO ally. Jordan Warlick is a policy adviser for the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission). Follow her on Twitter @jvcwarlick.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing on Russia's Genocide in Ukraine

        Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep Steve Cohen joined a panel of four experts moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Michael Cecire to discuss Russia’s genocide in Ukraine. The four panelists included Dr. Timothy Snyder, Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University; Ms. Maria Kurinna, Ukrainian human rights activist and international advocacy advisor at ZMINA; Dr. Eugene Finkel, Kenneth H. Keller Associate Professor of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University; and Dr. Erin Rosenberg, Senior Legal Advisor, Mukwege Foundation; Visiting Scholar, Urban Morgan Institute for Human Rights. The panelists unanimously agreed that Russia's  invasion of Ukraine meets the definition of the term genocide as defined by the Genocide Convention. According to that definition, genocide occurs when any of the following acts are committed with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group as such”: Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births withing the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group According to Snyder, Russia is unambiguously committing the five types of crimes outlined in the Genocide Convention. However, Russia’s clear statements of genocidal intent in its public statements and the media make it a unique case from a historical perspective. Kurinna spoke to her family’s experience in Luhansk and underscored how Ukrainians are being targeted with death threats and torture for supporting the Ukrainian national identity. She emphasized the importance of identifying Russia’s actions as a genocide distinct from other violations of international law, such as war crimes and mass killings. She called on the US to lead other democracies in labelling Russia’s actions as a genocide. Finkel added that words matter, and the decision to label Russia’s actions in Ukraine as a genocide has political, legal, historical, and moral significance. He stated that we have a moral imperative to stop the genocide that is currently happening and decide whether we are serious about genocide happening “never again.” Rosenberg concluded the panel portion of the briefing with an analysis of the genocide from an international law perspective. She asserted that Russia’s actions do qualify as genocide under the genocide convention and that the Ukrainian nationality is a protected group. However, she added that genocidal intent must be tied to a desire to destroy the group physically or biologically, not just culturally. Further, Rosenberg delineated the unique roles of the US Congress and executive branch under the genocide convention and stressed that while the US must take action to declare Russia’s actions a genocide, it should not seek to reproduce judicial processes when doing so. During the Q&A, the panelists stressed the need to understand Russia’s genocide in Ukraine in a global context and described the precedents that action – or inaction – will set for international security in the decades to come.    

  • Russia's Genocide in Ukraine

        Russia’s violently imperial war in Ukraine is not only a flagrant violation of international law and interstate norms, but it also carries all the hallmarks of an ongoing campaign of genocide in Ukraine. From Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s 7,000-word screed that systematically and historically denies Ukrainian nationhood; to mass graves uncovered in almost every Ukrainian territory liberated from Russian occupation; to the Kremlin’s public campaign of mass deportation and of Ukrainian civilians and children through “filtration” concentration camps; to the deliberate targeting of maternity hospitals, medical facilities, schools, and basic civil infrastructure; to the widespread employment of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of terror—rarely has genocidal intent and pattern of action been so clearly telegraphed and demonstrated for the world to see. According to the five-point definition under the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Russia has demonstrated clear, notorious, and mounting evidence in all five criteria, even though only one must be fulfilled to qualify as genocide. This briefing featured leading experts to review that evidence and highlight the urgent case for a congressional declaration of Russia’s genocidal intent and actions in Ukraine. In June, Helsinki Commission Cochairman Rep. Steve Cohen introduced House Resolution 1205 that would declare Russia’s genocidal campaign in Ukraine as it is. In July, a Senate companion (S.Res.713) was also introduced by Senator James Risch. In the spirit of prevention, as demanded by the 1948 Convention, and given the months- or often years-long time-frame for legal adjudications, these bills represent a bipartisan and bicameral political declaration based on the overwhelming and mounting evidence already in front of us.        

  • Joint Statement by Members of the Caucus Against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy and the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

    Washington, DC - Today, Helsinki Commission Cochairman Rep Steve Cohen and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson, Counter-Kleptocracy Caucus Co-Chairs Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick and Rep. Tom Malinowski, and caucus members Rep. Dan Crenshaw, Rep. Peter Meijer, Rep. Maria Salazar, and Rep. Abigail Spanberger, issued the following statement on their joint efforts to authorize the President to transfer the legally forfeited assets of Putin-connected kleptocrats to fund the reconstruction of Ukraine:  “We call on Congressional leadership to make every effort to include our bipartisan language allowing transfer to Ukraine of forfeited assets of Putin-connected kleptocrats. This effort was bipartisan from the get-go and remains so.   “This language is a page long and was included in the House-passed defense bill in July, following the House’s passage in April of a bill on Russian asset seizure. As Iranian drones flatten civilian targets across Ukraine, Congress should be able to review and negotiate a one-page legislative provision with a sense of urgency. If opponents have substantive concerns, they should have provided those at any point over the past six months.  “This is a matter of basic fiscal responsibility. With the inclusion of this provision, we would ensure that Putin’s corrupt cronies pay for part of Ukraine’s reconstruction. While we ask the American people to contribute to the success of freedom in Europe and around the world, we should make the same demand of dark money linked directly to the crimes of Putin‘s closest friends and allies.  “Furthermore, this provision would only apply to the assets of Russian criminals that have been forfeited under existing criminal laws. These laws have been thoroughly tested by the courts and are frequently used against narcotics and sex traffickers. For example, federal authorities can auction off assets of fentanyl traffickers—like speedboats used for smuggling—to remediate the harms suffered by their victims.  “We call on Speaker Pelosi, Leader McCarthy, Leader Schumer, and Leader McConnell to work vigorously to ensure inclusion of this measure in the final defense bill.”

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